Here are two questions:
When do you feel safe? And, when do you feel most alive?
They might appear similar questions, almost inter-changeable, but it may be they are quite different. We’ll see.
Starting with safety, it’s helpful to know when you feel safe. In Maslow’s famous pyramid of human need, safety comes second, after our physiological needs of oxygen, warmth, food and water.
When people are asked what makes them feel safe there are many different answers, like ‘Financial security’ or ‘shutting my front door’ or ‘sitting on top of a mountain’ or ‘good relationships’ or ‘the holy scriptures’ or ‘knowing what’s happening’ or ‘being alone’ or ‘being in control’ etc etc.
But what matters is not what other people say, but what you say. There is no right answer; just your answer. There are some who feel safe alone; and others, for whom solitude is the least safe place on earth.
But safety matters for us, we need to find safe places; here there is restoration, calm, deeper breath, grounding, anchoring; here our cortisol levels can drop.
Some never feel safe. Both their internal and external worlds are a threat. Solitude is frightening but so also is the crowd. They cannot find a place of safety either inside or outside themselves; and their physical and psychological bodies suffer.
So where do you feel safe?
I’m not sure we always know the answer; or rather, our first answer may not be true. One woman told me that closing the front door, and being with her family was her safe place; but it transpired the home was a place of considerable stress for her, sometimes involving breathing difficulties.
I’m not sure she has a safe place.
For myself, something about ‘knowing what’s happening’ is important, so I feel safest alone, because I know I’m not going to hurt me, no fear of invasion.
Safety is crucial to our well being, as Maslow observes, but we won’t make a god of it because some of our best work is done when we don’t feel safe.
I know someone whose life is geared to the avoidance of conflict and challenge; whose life is geared to the familiar, to their (imagined) safety. And though they are entering middle age, their emotional development is probably frozen around the age of eleven or twelve. It is difficult for them to move on.
But there is more to life than sinking ever deeper into our nest.
So, now our other question comes into play: ‘When do you feel most alive?’ And this may well be outside our comfort zone, in a place of apparent unsafety.
This describes our adventures in the world.
So where is it you feel most alive? Is it a place, a time, an activity or a person? Is it rock climbing, sewing, painting, meeting people, gardening, teaching, running, tai chi, in your home, in your work, in prayer, in the sun, in time spent alone?
Without safe places, our adventures will lack tenderness. We become brutalised adrenalin junkies, driven, anxious, restless, who may crash and burn.
Without adventures, we lose vitality; we lose connection with the world, becoming ghosts, adrift in an ever-diminishing existence defined by fear.
Safety and adventure are vital if we are to be fully human. They are a partnership.
In safety we are restored, anchored, grounded. We discover our stillness.
In adventure, we are challenged, spontaneous, risk-takers. We discover our creativity, which has so many different shapes. There’s no safety in creativity…
So when people speak of a balanced life, this is a place to start. They are wonderful together; dangerous if separated.
And I finish with a footnote: If we have an internal sense of safety, if we do not fear solitude, if we like ourselves – it makes a considerable difference to our adventuring.
The outside storm is OK if we’re not afraid inside.
But if we’re not safe with ourselves, if there’s no internal safety – perhaps stolen by guilt, shame or anxiety – then even the smallest adventure can break us.
So, where is your safe place?
And where do you feel most alive?
Your answer may be the same to both; or they may be quite different.